Sports and Politics

It’s no secret that I love hockey.  As a fan of a team yet to capture an elusive championship, I can confidently say that some of the happiest moments of my life as a fan of the best game on earth have come during the Olympics, specifically 2002 in Salt Lake City and 2010 in my hometown of Vancouver.  Along with almost every other Canadian alive today, I have been looking forward to watching Team Canada defend it’s gold medal in men’s (and women’s) hockey in 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  The problem is — it turns out that Russia has some particularly regressive policies towards the LGBT community, a crime severe enough for many to call for severely pressuring Russia, or Russia being disqualified even as it hosts the upcoming Winter Olympics.

The same thing happened in the lead-up to the Games in Vancouver, with protests drawing attention to the abuses that First Nations’ faced in the area, as well as the massive wealth-inequality that gives rise to the Downtown Eastside.  I was quite torn then, but largely sublimated those feelings and enjoyed the Olympics while they happened.  I am not denying that the Olympics are a brand worth billions of dollars that goes around the world throwing the most lavish of parties to celebrate sport.  While the athletes are treated like celebrities, with the exception of hockey, they are amateurs and have to spend most of the four-year period in between Games raising money so that they can train and compete at the highest level.  As the linked article from 2009 attests, corporations are the major entities profiting from the Games.  I do think, however, that sport is a very meaningful, and healthful, pursuit, one that it is perfectly reasonable to celebrate internationally.

What to do about the fact that Russia does have repressive anti-LGBT laws?  As Dave Zirin articulately puts in at The Nation, we would ideally hold our celebrations of sport in places without egregious human rights violations, except that that would leave us with this:

“if the only countries allowed in the Olympics had sparkling records on human rights, we’d be watching polar bears race penguins on an ice drift in Antarctica.”

Which is to say that none of our countries are anywhere near perfect — wherever the Olympics are held, now or in the future, there will be social issues that need to be addressed urgently.  So urgently, in fact, that one might wonder why the city or country in question is spending billions of dollars on hosting a party instead of using that money to combat the injustices happening every day to those less fortunate in those locations.

Looking for a quick fix to the systemically unequal way that this issue plays out in our world is a fantasy.  I think there are a couple of productive ways to look at the situation, though.  First, if nothing else, the Olympics draw the international community’s attention enough that a sustained campaign centering around the most pressing issues a Host City faces can effect real change, in ways that few other events could for cities around the world.  Second, this reality could be used to channel us all to address the local issues that we too often hide from, as they are the issues which we have a voice that legally deserves to be heard.

Sports are political, and, as with any institution where billions of dollars are changing hands, there are bound to be groups of people whose needs are systematically not being heard.  That does not discount the glory of sport, and the appropriateness of celebrating the Games, and aspiring to be fit, playful, and team-oriented.  It should, however, dampen our celebrations so long as they are not coupled with concerted efforts to battle the injustices under discussion.

Image courtesy of blogs.rj.org

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